Explore Paris’ black history on foot with this eye-opening walking tour
Paris is a city best seen on foot. The cobbled hills of Montmartre or the pedestrian micro-streets of the Marais are easy to lose in a sort of aimless wandering that Charles Baudelaire (and later Walter Benjamin) called stroll. But with so much of Paris’ rich history lurking in plain sight, blink and you’ll miss the 9th arrondissement plaque noting that Josephine Baker, the famous artist and civil rights activist, opens its first Parisian cabaret here – it can be a good idea go hiking to get the most out of your moseying. Whether solo or in a group, there’s a niche tour for just about everything: writers, artists, musicians, the Catacombs.
One of the oldest tour operators in the city, Admission to Paris Noir (formerly called Discover Paris), now offers 14 different specialized tours centered on the history of black Paris. Jour participants are introduced to the neighborhoods where famous people spent their time and created some of their most iconic works, from the café where Chester Himes wrote to the nightclubs where Bricktop sang.
“Traveling African Americans are always looking for some kind of connection with black people wherever they go, and to learn a little more about black history wherever they go – if there is, and if there is then what was it?” says tour co-founder Monique Wells, who started Discover Paris with her husband, Tom Reeves, in 1999. “So we decided to create self-guided walks on this topic for Paris.”
Tom’s tour (Black History in and around the Jardin du Luxembourg) is often more popular, as it is open to the public and can be booked at the last minute; Monique’s tours are private and must be booked at least six weeks in advance. For this reason, she often works with study abroad groups or group trips, as they tend to have to plan ahead, she tells Frenchly. (Tom’s tour is available to book online.)
Soon the demand for the tours grew, with more and more people requesting guided experiences as well. she and Tom have adjusted their self-guided itineraries and now lead 14 different tours, ranging from “Black History in and Around the Luxembourg Gardens” to “Black Images in European Art,” which is a tour of the Louvre. “We have 14 guided walking tours, and they range from looking at a geographic area in Paris and all sorts of things and people may be involved, or we have tours focused on individual people,” Monique explains. Tours can revolve around black luminaries such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker or Beauford Delaney, his favorite (and until then largely unknown) artist.
In 2009, Wells launched a foundation in his honor, Friends of Beauford Delaney, to raise funds to purchase a headstone for his previously unmarked grave. She continues to defend and advance her legacy through her writings and the foundation, as well as her Beauford Delaney’s Montparnasse tourwhich she says is one of her personal favorites.
This is perhaps one of the most wonderful parts of Entrance to Black Paris: Monique and Tom will introduce you to some, or more, characters you’ve never heard of, in addition to those more familiar to you. (think Josephine Baker and James Baldwin) . No matter how well you think you know Paris, the history gleaned from their tours illuminates a new and nuanced perspective of the city and how people of African descent have shaped it.
On a recent rainy day in April, I met Tom for his tour of the Luxembourg Gardens; it was the two of us and a British mother and her two children. We met in front of Le Petit Journal, a jazz bar across from the park. Tom started by telling us about the early history of jazz in France, showing us pictures of a filing cabinet in a charming old-fashioned presentation.
As we circled the park, he told us about some of the most iconic black writers who called Paris home, from Richard Wright to Chester Himes. He gave us the opportunity to sit down as often as possible and kept stops to less than 10 minutes which allowed the young children and myself with ADHD to focus and absorb the information in manageable blocks.
The tour ended at the French monument to former slaves, a sculpture of three open and interlocking chain links by the artist Fabrice Hybercalled ‘The cry, the writing,’ (The cry, the writing). The sculpture has elicited particularly poignant reactions from visitors in the past, Wells Frenchly says, with a number of them becoming emotional or exasperated that this story is not taught in America.
“After explaining the meaning of space and sculpture, [one] the woman was actually very upset. She was saying out loud, ‘I feel so stupid.’ And one of the young women [on the tour] said, ‘You shouldn’t feel stupid. They don’t teach that. You must have come all the way here to find out more. Another young student started crying and she said, “I’m just upset. I can’t believe the French nation put this here. We don’t have anything in the United States,” says Wells. “This whole meeting has been amazing. I had never seen anything like it before or since.
For those unable to travel to Paris, Wells also offers a virtual version of the visitwhich she launched in partnership with her non-profit organization, the Wells International Foundation, during the pandemic. “There are so many people who can’t afford to travel, and it’s a wonderful way to immerse yourself in it,” says Wells, who adds that the tour is especially interesting for middle and high school students. The goal is “to help underserved minorities get a taste and love of travel.”
Sophie Dodd is a writer for Frenchly who covers everything Paristravel, wine and way of life. She also writes for Travel + Leisure and PEOPLE. You can follow his adventures in Brooklyn, Paris and beyond on instagram.